The Surprising Rise Of Devan Dubnyk

It’s not often that a hockey player has his breakout season 11 years after being drafted, but that’s exactly what has happened to Minnesota wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

The conventional wisdom of the hockey world would tell you that it does take a little bit longer for a goaltender to mature in comparison to a position player, which is why it would have been no surprise to see Dubnyk solidify a permanent spot between the pipes for himself midway through his career with the Edmonton Oilers, but even though he had shown flashes of steady play with the club, things just didn’t come together for him.

It’s not all Dubnyk’s fault of course. His big 6’6 frame is built to cover up the net and he accomplished more than enough in his four years in the minor leagues to warrant an extended look in the NHL. As luck would have it, the Edmonton Oilers, the team that drafted Dubnyk in 2004 have been struggling for years, despite the fact the team seems to have lady luck on its side when it comes to the league’s draft lottery.

Thanks to the good fortune, or misfortune depending on your point of view, the team has managed to draft the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Dubnyk over the last 11 seasons. Had each of those players played up to the potential they displayed in their junior careers all at the same time in the NHL, the Oilers could be in the middle of a dynasty right now.

Unfortunately that’s not the way things worked out for Duby and the gang, which led to Devan being shipped to the Nashville Predators halfway through his fifth year in the league only to once again find himself moving on, this time to the Arizona Coyotes.

Although there was no chance that he was going to find himself any significant playing time behind Mike Smith in Arizona, Dubnyk did finish his tenure in the desert with a 9-5-2 record, which was just good enough to draw the interest of the Wild, where the former 14th overall pick finds himself with a spectacular 26-6-1 record through 34 games to go along with 5 shutouts. Those numbers aren’t too bad for a guy who’s never had more than two shutouts in an entire season prior to this year.

Of course what really matters is that now Minnesota finds itself in the middle of a playoff race when at the beginning of the season things seemed to be all out of sorts for the club and it looked as if the team was more likely to be booking spring tee times rather than playoff games.

While the team as a whole has played better over the last three months, the bulk of the credit definitely goes to Dubnyk. He has officially risen from the ashes and brought new hope to the Wild organization.

Although a hot second half of the season does not a career make, it’s safe to say that Dubnyk may have just found the perfect place to continue his career, although probably many years later than he thought he would have.

Potential Playoff Matchups

Part of the fun in any pro sports league is picking the potential matchups come playoff time. There is always going to be at least a couple matchups that everybody has reason to look forward to. With the NHL very much near its post season play, here are some of the potential first or second-round matchups that I would love to see, followed by a few that I hope do not happen.
Now if the post season were to being today, it would feature two clubs that I can’t stand to see winning (regular season or post season), so maybe I will begin with this one.

Montreal Canadiens vs Boston Bruins
The number-one match I don’t want to see, ever, would be Montreal, who would finish in top spot in the East, vs Boston, the one team that I have never, and will never side with them. I don’t like Boston. I never will like Boston. I wouldn’t even go to Boston if somebody paid me to go. But right now they would have a wild-card spot clinched so they would make the cut. Last year’s second-round set went the distance and saw Montreal almost easily win the deciding game. I will re-iterate though, I hope that this does not happen.

Montreal Canadiens vs Ottawa Senators
The other series that I hope does not happen is Montreal vs Ottawa. When more than half of the Canadian content (team wise) in the National Hockey League qualifies for the playoffs, you never want to see two of them face off against each other. It’s almost like watching two fat chicks get into a fistfight over a guy or something. Nobody wins when that happens. And thus the same may be said in a playoff matchup like this (actually, should the show start tonight, the Canucks and Flames would be meeting each other in the Western conference playoffs. Again nobody wins.
And now…

The playoff matchups that I would love to see:

Number one, Montreal Canadiens vs Tampa Bay Lightning would be nice
Last season’s first-round matchup was supposed to be good. It wasn’t good (unless you are a Montreal fan), the series went by in four games, Tampa and Steven Stamkos were virtually non-existent. You have to think that should the two clubs meet up again next month, Tampa should make it a bit more entertaining. As of Monday afternoon, the Lightning trail Les Canadiens by a mere three points. If they do meet again this year, the Bolts should spray paint the work ‘Payback’ in gigantic letters somewhere in the dressing room…in both arenas.

The next top matchup….Montreal Canadiens vs New York Rangers
What the Canadiens did last year to the Lightning, the Rangers did to the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup semi-final. This cannot happen again. Hopefully the Rangers’ Chris Kreider will not jam his skate into Carey Price again if they do meet; but if they do meet, I would expect the Habs to exact some revenge on the Rangers.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues vs Chicago Blackhawks
Now, possible awesome first-round or second-round matches over in the West, I am going with the St. Louis Blues again this year, and the way things have been going for them as of late, they will probably end up playing someone more heavily-favoured than they are. There is only one team that really comes to mind right here, and that is the Chicago Blackhawks.
What the Chicago Blackhawks have been doing to the Blues lately in the post season, is like what the LA Kings have been doing to everybody in the playoffs the two years that they won the Stanley Cup, and that is make everybody else look stupid.
LA beat up on San Jose so bad that they forced the entire team to check themselves over and they are still not finished doing it; Chicago does the same thing to the Blues the two years that they have met in the playoffs. I would like to think that this year, that may change.
Surprise, surprise, should the playoffs be starting tonight, it’s St. Louis vs Chicago, only three points separates these two, and St. Louis would appear to have home-ice advantage.
And the final series that I would love to witness again this year is…

Minnesota Wild vs Colorado Avalanche
I had such a good time watching them beat each other up last year, what better way to celebrate the greatest season of all than watch these two teams battle in the playoffs?

I think overall, Colorado would be favoured, however, first they would have to get there, as they remain in the hunt and are eight points behind the Winnipeg Jets, and they have seven games remaining in which to get back into it.

Carolina Hurricanes, New Regime and Hope In Future

The Carolina Hurricanes have been a strange franchise since the team moved from Hartford. In 16 seasons, they have only managed five appearances in the NHL playoffs, but they have made the most of those trips reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, winning it all in 2006 and reaching the conference finals in 2009.

Despite that success, fans have been deprived of a consistently competitive team. The Hurricanes have missed the playoffs in five straight seasons and in seven of the last eight. An organization that has traditionally favored stability over an “overhaul” finally broke a habit at the end of a fifth successive failure removing Jim Rutherford and Kirk Muller from their respective positions as GM and head coach in April last year.

Ron Francis was appointed as the team’s new GM and he hired former AHL coach and Detroit Red Wings assistant Bill Peter as his bench boss. It hasn’t necessarily resulted in immediate progress – Carolina holds the sixth worst record in the NHL and are set to miss the playoffs for a sixth straight year and eighth time in last eight years – but there are signs of hope for this franchise’s future.

It starts with Francis, a man who rightfully commands tremendous respect in the NHL The Hall-of-Famer was the type of player that every team wanted in its locker-room, and also out on the ice, intuitively it feels like Francis is a man who can bring a fresh and clear vision to Carolina.

It should be noted that the previous regime didn’t do a bad job of drafting and recruiting young talent. Francis inherits a roster that includes: Elias Lindholm, Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Riley Nash, Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy to name just a few. The prospect cupboards aren’t completely bare either, Haydn Fleury promises to be an excellent NHL defender, while forward Brock McGinn and goaltender Alex Nedelikovic are among other notable recent draft picks.

Peters is the man charged with bringing the “Red Wings way” to this talented, but extremely young group of players. Known as a defensive specialist, Peters also has a history of coaching in the AHL where player development is a key part of the job description. His task isn’t too dissimilar here and he has spent the best part of this season learning more about what the organization possesses talent wise.

In December, a month where they went 3-10-1, the Hurricanes moved into contender status for one of the first two picks in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, many fans welcomed and even hoped for an opportunity to draft Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. However, Peters was determined that his team would not tank and that posting a miserable record over the last three and a half months of the season would not be tolerated, even with playoff aspirations already spoiled.

The result has been a relatively competitive 18-13-7 record in 2015. A losing run at the beginning of March spoiled a combined 14-7-3 marker posted across Jan and Feb, but nonetheless, the young Canes are adapting to Peters’ system and there are reasons to be hopeful that the team’s absence from the postseason needn’t last forever.

A key piece in that turnaround will be leading scorer, captain and face of the franchise Eric Staal. The now 30-year old had struggled for production in the month of March, until he registered six points in a three-game stretch last week. 2014-15 looks set to be Staal’s worst campaign productivity wise since he scored 31 points in 2003-04 – his rookie year.

Peters has done just about everything to jump start his superstar’s production, including moving him to play on the wing last November. That decision has stuck with Staal spending most of his time paired with his brother – Jordan.

Staal didn’t have a great season in 2013-14 either. He scored just 21 goals and 61 points in 79 games. Some of it is undoubtedly talent, previous teams have been deeper and Staal has probably had wingers that better compliment his skill set. It can be challenging to retain focus and intensity on a team that doesn’t have the opportunity to seriously compete for a playoff spot.

It’ll be a challenge for Peters next season to spark his captain at the beginning of the season. Carolina are likely to start the year as a more experienced, but still exceedingly young roster, and the core of their success will still need to be regular scoring from more experienced players like Staal, his brother and Jeff Skinner (who is still only 22 himself).

The other significant area for Peters and Francis to dissect is in net. There may be some temptation to stick with a two-man set up in 2015-16, but both have expiring contracts after next year presumably forcing a decision on a definite starter.

Neither player has had an easy time of it playing behind an inexperienced blue line (even more so since Andrej Sekera was traded).

Ward is the player with a Stanley Cup on his resume and the most experience as a heavily used starter. However, he has been plagued with injuries in recent seasons and there are signs that a heavy workload might have started to take its toll on his body. He’s also always been slightly erratic between the pipes, though he backstopped both of Carolina’s recent playoff appearances impressively. Meanwhile, Khudobin has hinted at being that “lights out” starting goaltender. However, he’s never actually managed to put a full season together at that level. He doesn’t have the same wear and tear as Ward, but he’s only three years younger.


Whichever route Francis and Peters go, there is a clear vision. Expect Francis to have a busy offseason with a good stockpile of draft picks to utilize. This Hurricanes roster – with a few select additions – could have the potential to be very competitive in 2015-16. A new regime has brought new hope to this franchise.

Why The Islanders Gave Johnny Boychuk The Big Bucks

          Perhaps most hockey experts would call New York Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuk a bit of a late bloomer. He is after all having a career best year at the ripe young age of 31, an age where most players are expected to be in the middle of their prime already and maybe even trending on a downward slope. Of course it didn’t exactly help that Boychuk spent the first five full years of his career on a Boston Bruins team filled with talented defenseman, including the likes of Dennis Seidenberg, Dougie Hamilton and former perennial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara.

           One of the positive things about being a Boston Bruin to start his career is that Boychuk learned how to become a winner, something that the Islanders franchise hasn’t done a lot of since the glory days of the 1970s. Of course coming over from Boston with a winning attitude alone isn’t what gets you a long term contract in the NHL in this salary cap conscious, analytics focused era in hockey… it takes a lot more than that.

           Normally one would automatically refer to the box score and point out a defenseman who is going to make an average of $6 million per season for the next seven years as one who can likely light the lamp on the power play and be his team’s best defenseman on any given night. Boychuck undoubtedly has the ability to be his team’s best defenseman, but until he started putting up career numbers this year, he wasn’t exactly lighting up the lamp or picking up helpers quarterbacking the powerplay.

           So what is it exactly that got a guy who, prior to this season, has never scored more than five goals and 23 points in a campaign a $42 million deal? He’s steady. Boychuck blocks a ton of shots and he’s not afraid to throw his body around. He does also have a career high in goals and points during what was just a little while ago a contract year.

           Let the detractors and naysayers say what they want about players on the cusp of their best years getting paid way too much in advance of their performance. That’s just the way the game is these days. Only time will tell whether the Islanders have found themselves a key piece that will help them build towards making the Islanders a perennial contender once again, or whether they’ve just signed the next Nathan Horton or David Clarkson. It’s also important to keep in mind that this isn’t the first time a player has stayed in a market that most of his colleagues would rather not entertain for the sake of inking a long-term, big money deal.

 As far as Boychuk is concerned however, he’s obviously okay with the idea of having long-term security while playing for a franchise that is on the upswing and likely will continue to be just that for the next seven years.


          At the end of the day no matter how things work out for Boychuk, he’s getting paid what the present day market allows, and now it’s on him to prove the Isles right for paying him a premium to stay on Long Island.

Somebody Pray for San Jose

I think you can count Joe Thornton among the big-name NHL superstar players that will probably never ever win Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail.
Try to find a bunch of other hockey players/athletes that never won anything.
After making headlines across the league last week, talking about how former captain Joe Thornton lets the emotions get to him in the media, Sharks GM Doug Wilson insists that the 2 have patched things up.
I personally think that this team is on a one-way trip to Nowheresville.
With the NHL playoffs just around the corner, and this team not having any playoff luck in recent years, I am not convinced that this club can get it all together in time for this time next month when the post season would be underway.
Even Thornton’s teammate and one of the top players on the club, Joe Pavelski seemed a little taken back at reporters’ questions regarding the team’s future.
The team’s on-ice future has its doubts, and so does the happenings off of the ice. That definitely includes possible trades, and that includes Joe Thornton.
Wilson has said all along that the veteran centreman will not be leaving.
With the nonsense between Thornton and Wilson briefly taking over, Thornton’s teammates seem to have sided with him for now, says Pierre LeBrun of espn.com.
Now with San Jose’s pitiful playoff performances in recent years, and now this, something has to happen in the offseason; something should have already happened after they blew 4 straight games to the Los Angeles Kings last season, but we can’t dwell on that anymore (can we?).
What everything comes down to now is that the team is going have to cut one of them loose following this season.
Thornton has a no-trade clause in his contract, and Wilson said he won’t ask Thornton to waive it.
The remark about Thornton that started all of this nonsense in the first place happened at a Sharks season-ticket holder event where Wilson made the mistake of telling fans that Thornton was stripped of the ‘C’ because he had a tough time dealing with all the pressure.
Thornton responded by telling a San Jose newspaper that Wilson “was lying and should shut his mouth.”

Asked about whether the incident between him and Thornton was concerning, considering the timing of it all, Wilson brushed off the idea. This team still has some work to do, as of March 23, they stand to be the next team in the Western conference that could be eliminated from contention. San Jose is in 4th place in the Pacific division trailing the LA Kings by 4 points. The only teams below San Jose today are Edmonton and Arizona, both of whom are eliminated.

This Year is a Good Year to be Bad

The NHL draft is probably something to get excited about if your team continues to suffer year after year, or you are actually involved with one of those teams that are in contention to draft among the highest-rated prospects.

The group of 2015 NHL draft prospects is so deep that success and failure will both have their rewards upon the conclusion of the season; one team will win the Stanley Cup, and a few teams will be choosing what appears to be some beyond-gifted talent at the draft this summer.

"It's a good year to be bad," St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said.

While 16 teams compete in the NHL playoffs, the other 14 will be sizing up what is expected to be a draft that will yield a high number of difference-makers.

"The top 10 kids are going to be pretty good at the NHL level," said Dan Marr, the NHL's director of scouting.

My team is one of those teams and it excites me little, but for those of you who are sided with teams such as Buffalo, Edmonton, Carolina or the Coyotes, this draft piece is probably aimed towards you.

With the exception of myself, Leaf fans at this time of year get excited for Draft day. I don’t because I couldn’t care less, but for the fans of teams that aren’t going anywhere (playoffs) at this time of year, get all riled up over the possibility of the highest-rated draft pick, landing with their team, whoever that may be.

As it stands today, fans of the following clubs: Buffalo, Edmonton, Arizona, Carolina, Toronto, Columbus, New Jersey, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Jose and the Colorado Avalanche, all play the guessing game from now until Draft day, deciding which of the top-ranked prospects will suit up for their team.

According to most sources out there, the #1 prospect playing today is Connor McDavid. McDavid plays for the Erie Otters of the OHL, and has been on TSN SportsCentre more than Natasha Staniszewski and Kate Beirness together.

Here is my rundown of the top 5 players going into this summer’s Entry Draft:

1) Connor McDavid (Erie Otters):
He is considered by most to be that ‘next generation’ hockey player. He sees the game in a different universe. He is lightning quick, both mentally and physically. And what the mind directs, the hands and feet can both do. With an exceptional ability to recognize both opportunity, and danger, and at the exact same time, then exploit the opportunity to avoid the danger.

Possible destination: right now, Buffalo Sabres, however with the NHL lottery draft set up the way it is, either of the bottom-5 finishers could be awarded the #1 pick.

2) Jack Eichel (Boston University Terriers) :
If Connor McDavid is the undisputed leader of the pack, then Boston University’s Jack Eichel is the clear-cut number 2. Any player could be drafted number one, but Eichel is going to sit one spot below McDavid, at least up until draft day. Some scouts still believe that Eichel could seriously challenge McDavid. Eichel was very impressive after the first period of the US Top Prospects game. There doesn’t seem to be much separating the two kids heading into the draft, and some teams (Buffalo, Edmonton, Carolina etc) could opt for the big body that Eichel brings. Eichel weighs in at 6’2” 194 lbs, while McDavid is at 6’ 0” and 185lbs.

Possible destination: Edmonton Oilers

3) Noah Hanifan (Boston College Eagles):
Hanifan also had a strong game in the US Top Prospects game although he did not stand out as much as Eichel and Jeremy Bracco, Hanifan is that NHL-sized defenceman with an elite skating ability and he brings all of the physical and mental tools that NHL teams are looking for. He plays with poise that is exceptional for a young player and he puts himself in advantageous positions to make plays both defensively and offensively. Skating is superb and he has confidence and ability with the puck.

Possible destination: Arizona Coyotes

4) Mitch Marner (London Knights):
Last year, he had 59 points in 63 games. His even-strength points per 60 minutes (ES 60) of 3.1 were the best of the first-year draft eligible players for 2015 in the CHL not named Connor McDavid who had 3.9. Another reason for Marner’s high ranking heading into the draft? He is the OHL’s leading scorer with 124 points through 62 games. That includes 44 goals. What NHL team wouldn’t want that?

Possible destination: Carolina Hurricanes

5) Dylan Strome (Erie Otters)
It may only be necessary to note that Strome has more points than his famous teammate Connor McDavid, albeit by only 3 points as of Sunday night. Strome currently leads the Otters in point with 117, McDavid has more goals than Strome does but only by 4. Strome’s game is predicated on his ability to slow the game down and use his elite vision to make plays that other players in this draft are incapable of making. His passing ability and vision are at the top of the crop and allow him to find the score sheet nearly every game. Strome's major appeal is his offense. He currently leads the entire OHL in points, which is somewhat misleading since Connor McDavid has been injured and was away at the World Juniors. Still, it's quite an accomplishment for a draft eligible to be at the top of the scoring race in the world's best junior league.

Possible destination: Toronto Maple Leafs

Deciding How To Feel About Joe Thornton

It doesn’t feel that long ago that Joe Thornton was being drafted first overall. The expectations with which he entered the NHL could hardly have been higher. In many ways, he has met so many of those expectations, but at the age of 35, and with the final chapter in his career reaching its conclusion, it seems that “Jumbo Joe” will just always be something of a divisive figure.

It was hardly more evident than with the recent storyline around the aggravation between Thornton and San Jose Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson. Thornton took issue with comments made by Wilson about his time as captain and how he “couldn’t handle it”. Thornton’s reply was essentially to tell his GM to “shut it”.

On the one hand, Thornton is such a likeable person and his career achievements so respectable that it feels unprofessional for Wilson to share comments about his former captain’s weaknesses - even if it was in a relatively enclosed fans’ forum. On the other, it was hard not to acknowledge that Wilson did have a point. Hasn’t there always been something missing from Thornton’s leadership capabilities? Hasn’t there always just been something missing from his game overall? Thornton has ridden the line between high quality player and champion throughout his career.

It now feels like the two-time captain, Sharks’ all-time leading scorer and one-time league MVP will not go down as an all-time great. His profile, his career and the crucial eye test just don’t quite add up to that.

It starts with the captaincy. Somehow, Thornton has always gravitated towards leadership roles. He is generally well-liked and respected by his team mates, he has been one of the best, if not the best, players on every team he has played on. Yet, as much as he seems to be a natural candidate for the role, Thornton has never quite met expectations as a captain.

He was heavily criticised in Boston, where he was captain from 2002-2005, for being too lazy, too relaxed and for failing to step up and lead his team when it mattered most. In San Jose, opinion was left unanimously negative, but the team’s leadership structure was considered a point to review after a San Jose became only the fourth team to lose a playoff series after leading 3-0. Thornton might comment that the problems obviously run deeper than leadership given the team’s poor performance this season.

The problem is that the perception that Thornton’s teams have generally underachieved in the postseason is backed up by data. The final evaluation of players comes down to how they play when it really counts. Being the top offensive player and captain on a team that is underachieving will bring you under the microscope. Thornton’s play has never quite lived up to those expectations.

Captaincy
Thornton’s Regular Season Performance
Team Regular Season Performance
Thornton’s Postseason Performance
Team’s Postseason Performance
Bruins 2002-03
101pts in 77 games
7th East
3pts in 5 games
1st round loss 1-4 NJ
Bruins 2003-04
73pts in 77 games
2nd in East
0pts in 7 games
1st round loss 3-4 MTL
Sharks 2010-11
70pts in 80 games
2nd in West
17pts in 18 games
Conf Finals loss 1-4 VAN
Sharks 2011-12
77pts in 82 games
7th in West
5pts in 5 games
1st round loss 1-4 STL
Sharks 2012-13
40pts in 48 games
6th in West
10pts in 11 games
2nd round loss 3-4 LA
Sharks 2013-14
76pts in 82 games
4th in West
3 pts in 7 games
1st round loss 3-4 LA

There’s nothing in this table that jumps out as especially poor and with the possible exception of the 2004 loss to Montreal, there’s no shame in any of San Jose’s playoff defeats. However, there’s also nothing outstanding. Overall, the Sharks are 8-9 in playoff series since Thornton joined the team. Again there’s nothing “shameful” in that. However, only one team can lift the Stanley Cup at the end of the season - teams and individuals have to find some way to excel, some way to be better than everyone else.

There is a discrepancy between Thornton’s postseason and regular season performances.

Games
Goals/G
Assists/G
Points/G
Regular season
1275
356 (0.28)
900 (0.71)
1256 (0.99)
Postseason
132
24 (0.18)
76 (0.58)
100 (0.76)

It’s worth noting that Thornton’s points per game for San Jose in the playoffs is higher than his career average at 0.85. However, the picture is still relatively clear. Big Joe doesn’t come up big (at least on the scoreboard) when the games matter most.

A lot of it has to do with Thornton’s style of play. He excels at holding and cycling the puck, and picking out teammates with passes. He has a good shot and big body, but he has long frustrated with a refusal to use his shot more and he’s toned down the physical element of his game during his career. Under San Jose head coach Todd McLellan, he has become a better two-way player, but for the most part that has been Thornton’s game.

900 assists and 1256 points in the regular season suggest that it’s pretty effective. Thornton is likely to finish his career somewhere - if not in - the NHL’s top 10 all-time assists leaders.

However, when the hockey gets faster, more physical and tighter, it appears that Thornton’s brand of hockey is a little less proficient. Offenses are awarded in the playoffs for crashing and driving the net, getting bodies and pucks at goaltenders and playing with a higher level of offensive instinct (as opposed to calculation).

At 35 years old and with two years remaining on a contract that will pay him $6.75 million annually, it’s hard to know “where next?” for Thornton. The clock is definitely ticking on his chances of winning a Stanley Cup.

All reports suggest that Thornton has no desire to leave San Jose and that he loves the city (who can blame anyone for enjoying California). However, with San Jose set to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2001, changes are to be expected. It will surely be the “last straw” for McLellan and players like Patrick Marleau and Thornton will surely be asked to waive whatever NTCs they have for the betterment of the team.

Maybe the organization will elect to ride it out. Maybe they’ll give the team one more chance to succeed, or maybe they’ll hope that a different coach will create different results. Either way, it appears that Thornton’s image, as an NHL player, will always be as someone who never quite lived up to his talent. He’ll always straddle that line between the talented and likeable player and one whose production dropped in the playoffs.

Perhaps he has been slightly unlucky as well. San Jose have twice reached the conference finals and their last two series defeats have come to an incredibly strong LA Kings team. The Sharks have always had a strong roster, but they’ve also always probably had a piece or two missing - particularly on the blue-line.

Thornton has two seasons left on his current contract. He probably doesn’t have many more than two seasons left in his career. It’s not clear whether his final seasons will be spent for the Sharks. His best chance of erasing the Cup goose egg from his resume might be elsewhere. Either way, it looks like Thornton’s career will never quite live up to the expectations that he approached the draft podium carrying.

Mike Johnston’s Pittsburgh Penguins Are Ready To Grind

Ever since the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to acquire Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in consecutive drafts, the word “dynasty” has been attached to the franchise’s current era. It appeared that things were on track when the Penguins reached consecutive Stanley Cup Finals - they won the championship in 2009. However, Pittsburgh hasn’t quite managed to live up to those dynastic expectations since that breakthrough Cup triumph. A new head coach, healthy superstars and a more balanced mindset might just have Pittsburgh primed for another serious Cup run.

There’s always a slightly awkward feeling when it comes to critiquing a franchise that has enjoyed the success Pittsburgh has over the last five years. They’ve reached the playoffs all five times, topped the 100-point mark three times and won the Atlantic Division twice.

However, it’s impossible to deny that – considering the talent of their core – Pittsburgh hasn’t quite met expectations since 2009. The Montreal Canadiens ground them out in 2010 and suffocated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. Goaltending and defense were exposed in a high-scoring first round series against Pennsylvania rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. After finally “breaking through” and reaching the conference finals in confident fashion in 2013, they were totally outplayed while being swept by the Boston Bruins. Another grinding, tough loss to the New York Rangers in 2014 was the final straw for the head coach, Dan Bylsma.

It was clear that a change of philosophy was required for the Penguins. Bylsma was (slight unfortunately) fired and Mike Johnston was hired to be the team’s new head coach.

Johnston changed the team’s defensive structure to play with a greater zone focus and to require greater participation from the forward group. This has helped Pittsburgh tighten up their defense ranking fifth in the league while conceding just 2.40 goals against per game.

The personnel on the blue-line has also helped. Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Ian Cole, Rob Scuderi, Ben Lovejoy and Christian Ehrhoff form a pretty solid six-man unit and Johnston leans on each pairing, rather than focusing too heavily on any single unit.

It’s worth noting that the Penguins have hardly slipped offensively averaging 2.73 goals per game ranking 14th in the NHL. Johnston also has both special teams units ranking in the top 10.

The rookie head coach has benefitted from some fortune on the health front (assuming Malkin’s ailment is only minor). His two superstar players have each missed only a handful of games. Consequently, both are in contention for the scoring title - Crosby has 74 points and Malkin has 68. While they have two scoring titles apiece, only once before have the two generational talents been in contention for the Art Ross Trophy in the same season (2008-09 being the other).

There’s no question that it is Crosby and Malkin who make this offense click. They are capable of single-handedly driving a line each and there are only a few players in the league more dangerous on the man advantage.

Crucially, there is a real feeling that a combination of some shrewd moves made by General Manager Ray Shero and a change in philosophy and emphasis from Johnston has this Penguins’ team ready for the grind and ready to grind in this season’s playoffs.

The core of this team is still highly-skilled players in Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang, but they have added some players who drive to and hang around the front of the net in forwards David Perron and Patric Hornqvist. Nick Spaling, Danniel Winnik, Steve Downie and Maxim Lapierre provide a nice balance of speed, physicality and a willingness to mix it up to the bottom six, while a similar grittiness can be found in the defensive pairing of Cole and Scuderi.

The Penguins are heavily reliant upon Crosby and Malkin. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will also once again come under the microscope after some shaky playoff performances in recent years. However, there are reasons for fans to feel optimistic about the prospects of this team to final add a second Stanley Cup to the Crosby-Malkin era.

It’s difficult to judge the way this team will play when the hockey gets serious in roughly one month’s time, but it’s hard to see them being them “out-grinded” by the Rangers, Islanders, Capitals, Canadiens or Lightning. The path through the Eastern conference in the playoffs is far from clear, but the 2015 playoffs might just be Pittsburgh’s best chance since their memorable run in 2009.

Malkin’s injury – picked up in the game against Boston on Saturday – is a reminder of how fragile Stanley Cup aspirations can be. Still, as long as they continue to grind, the Penguins will be a team to avoid when the playoffs start late next month. 

Worst Team-and-Player Breakups in the NHL

It doesn’t happen very often, but it makes for some great news headlines when it does.
Team drafts/trades for player, team is excited, player is excited. Fans go nuts.
And then all hell breaks loose.
The most recent example was Evander Kane leaving the Winnipeg Jets (for Buffalo of all places), then we the sports fans, get to sit back and poke fun at whoever got the worst of it.
That’s the best part of the breakup, somebody has to lose. Sometimes nobody gets the better of it, but in every single case, somebody loses either money, respect, pride, or a fun mix of both.
Here are some of the worst (best) that I could find online:

-Evander Kane and the Jets, 2014 
The long and short of it saw Kane show up to a team meeting. Apparently everybody else was dressed in a suit (hockey players at almost every level are required to look good, even at Pee Wee, so what Kane may have been thinking, I do not know). Some players did not take this too well. One of them was the big guy on the team, Dustin Byfuglien.
Byfuglien then proceeded to throw some of Kane’s clothes in a shower stall. When Kane realized this, apparently he went home and the team could not reach him until about an hour prior to game time. Not cool, Kane. This may have not been quite so bad had Kane not been photographed from a hotel room in Las Vegas pretending to talk to Floyd Mayweather on a phone made of 100 dollar bills.

Who won? Right now, the Jets won because they no longer have to deal with this clown, I have trouble believing that Kane wins because now he is stuck in Buffalo, one of the worst franchises in the league. And to further the problem, they just traded their starting goaltender (Michal Neuvirth) for the NYI backup goaltender (Chad Johnson). Don’t see this as a win for Kane; at least the Jets will probably make the post season; plus they got Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford in the deal.

-Dany Heatley and the Senators, 2009
This is the spoiled brat story for the ages. This is the dude that killed a past teammate (unintentionally we hope) while speeding in a Lamborghini) then got traded to Ottawa where he became a flat-superstar, scoring 50-goals in two seasons and establishing himself as one of the most unstoppable forces in the game. He also scored 4 times in the all-star game one year.
Then all hell broke loose.
The team struggled, and then Heatley decided that he did not like the team’s new head coach, Corey Clouston.
Then, because of the no-trade clause in his contract, Heatley got to choose the team he would be dealt to.
Ottawa then had a deal worked out with the Oilers (of all teams) as a destination, however that was not good enough for Heater either. Plus, the dilemma dragged out for so long that the Sens were forced to pay out a $4 million roster bonus even though the sniper wasn’t playing.
Ottawa wound up granting Heatley’s request, sending him to San Jose in a deal that fetched Milan Michalek as the main component in return; Jonathan Cheechoo and a draft pick were also in the package. At the time, it was seen as a lopsided win for the Sharks. The Senators eventually took Heatley to court in attempt to win their bonus money back.
According to the Ottawa Sun in a story dated Oct. 22, 2013, the Senators were able to get some of the money back.

Who won? The Senators, easily. Heater had one strong season in San Jose. He was there for a total of 2 seasons. He played injured a lot, despite a trip to the Conference Finals in 2010 where the Sharks were swept by the Blackhawks. The following season was his worst. He was dealt to the Minnesota Wild and has been bouncing around ever since.
Heater is now signed with the Florida Panthers; Milan Michalek, on the other hand, remains a relatively strong part of the Senators.

-Ilya Kovalchuk and the Devils,  2013
Three years into this 15-year deal, Kovalchuk decided that he would rather go back home and play in the KHL. I think that tells you who won the conflict right there. Now we should all be wondering at what point Kovy decides to try and make a return to the NHL.

-Paul Kariya and the Mighty Ducks,  2003
Kariya was the first draft pick of the then-Anaheim Mighty Ducks. He did everything for them except win the Stanley Cup in 2003 (they came up one game short to be exact). The team owed him a qualifying offer at that point, for the value of his contract ($10M). They decline to make it. Kariya did not like that. Not one bit. Kariya had been the face of the franchise for 10 years in Anaheim.
This made him an unrestricted free agent and could go anywhere he chose.
He signed a contract, and shocked everybody in the process. It was worth only $1.2M with the Colorado Avalanche.

Who won? Kariya did not win. He didn’t win anything. He had his first disappointing year in the NHL. The Avalanche were already heavily loaded with offensive stars, expected to win the Stanley Cup; and the following season was wiped out by the lock out.
Kariya wound up spending the next 5 seasons between Nashville and St. Louis and did not regain that superstar status. As for the Ducks, they missed the playoffs without Kariya in 2004, rebuilt themselves, and actually won the Cup 3 years later.

-Eric Lindros and the Flyers,  2001
Eric Lindros won the Hart Trophy and took his team on a hell of a ride to the Stanley Cup final in 1997…all this came after all the craziness of the draft which saw the Flyers outbid the entire league to acquire Lindros since he had refused to play for the team that drafted him originally, the Quebec Nordiques.
In my mind, he was doomed from that very day. Great player (for awhile). Bad attitude.
Come 2000, he started falling victim to the deadly concussion, and other health problems. Then he attempted to make a heroic return to the conference finals but was sent right back to the hospital after Scott Stevens nailed him near the blueline, and he was done like dinner, completely.
The ‘fun’ part began when he refused a two-way qualifying offer from the Flyers. He told GM Bobby Clarke that he wanted to be traded to one team, and one team only, that was the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Furthermore, if Clarke could not make a deal with the Leafs, Lindros would sit out the entire season; he ended up doing that.
The Leafs nearly had him on 2 separate occasions, both times missed so Lindros gave Clarke more destination teams to which he would accept a trade.
Finally they found a deal with the Rangers, but all that arguing probably cost Lindros his entire career, he never dominated. He was granted his original wish, to play for the Leafs, but that didn’t go well, either.
He is probably sitting at home somewhere right now as I write this.

-Chris Pronger and the Oilers,  1999
Pronger had arrived in Edmonton and in his first year with the Oilers, the team went on a wild playoff run that saw them lose in the Stanley Cup final to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Once that playoff run ended, he said he wanted out.
Nobody has a clue why he made that decision. My guess is his wife decided that she was sick of Oil town (remember another NHL superstar that put Edmonton back on the map then asked for a trade because his wife wasn’t from town???).
Edmonton sent Pronger to Anaheim (big surprise-it isn’t cold down there), in exchange for Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and draft picks.
Sadly for Canadian hockey fans (and Oiler fans), the superstar won a Stanley Cup down in Anaheim in 2007. The Oilers had to do what they could with what they got (Jordan Eberle) but their franchise has looked like a cyclone hit it, ever since. Not good.

Who won? Ducks of course.

-Pavel Bure and the Canucks,   1999
One of the least-known breakups in pro hockey was between Pavel Bure (the Russian Rocket) and the Vancouver Canucks. Bure was one of the most electrifying hockey players during the 1990s. He could dipsy-doodle around everybody the same way Patrick Kane does today. Bure had a pair of 60-goal seasons and he led the Canucks to the 1994 Stanley Cup final which they came up short in 7 to the Rangers.
Bure made 5 all-star teams too. It wasn’t all fun and games, though. There were contract disputes and a rumoured threat of a holdout during the playoffs.
After the 1997-98 season, Bure informed the team that he would not report the following seasons, saying he was unhappy with the organization. Bure remained in Moscow during training camp.
Vancouver finally traded the unhappy superstar to the Florida Panthers.

Who won? Hard to argue against Bure. He had 98 points in the first season (1999-2000) and was league scoring champ, the following year he scored 59 goals. Vancouver got Ed Jovanovski in the Bure deal so they did not get completely ripped off.

-Patrick Roy and the Canadiens , 1995
Nobody on the Montreal Canadiens roster in the early 1990s had a stronger impact on the team than goaltender Patrick Roy.
That all changed one night in December of 1995 when the Detroit Red Wings rolled into town.
They absolutely destroyed Patrick Roy. Absolutely destroyed him. He had nothing that night and it wound up being his last with the Habs.
The Wings beat Roy 9 times on 26 shots and the Canadiens’ ‘faithful’ gave it to him too.
That was end of Roy in Montreal. He got suspended after he told team president Ronald Corey that he played in his last game for Montreal. He was traded to the Avalanche. Roy hadn’t gotten along with the new coach hired in Montreal Mario Tremblay, but the 11-1 loss was clearly what moved him.

Who won? The Avs won, big time. Roy led them to their first Stanley Cup that year (if you are a Habs fan, that had to hurt), and Colorado won another Cup in 2001.
The Habs were roasted like Charlie Sheen on Comedy Central, for not getting anything back for Roy. Montreal hasn’t returned to the Cup since Roy played for them.

Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Chase

The NHL trade deadline has passed and the long regular season has entered its final quarter; no team has more than 20 games remaining on their schedule. The chase for playoff places is heating up in both conferences. However, the action is particularly tight out West where only the Arizona Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers are completely out of the race. Sports Jerseys Canada breaks down the current state of play.

Playoff Locks: Nashville, St Louis, Anaheim and Chicago

The Nashville Predators, St Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks are in positions where it’s just about inconceivable that they wouldn’t make the playoffs. It’s reasonable to lock them. We’ll also make the slightly more contestable decision to place the Chicago Blackhawks into “lock “ status. Chicago will only be seven points ahead of the conference’s eighth seed, but the Blackhawks have a deep and talented lineup and they’d make the playoffs if they played only .500 hockey over their final 18 games.

Central Teams Hold Wildcard Spots

Winnipeg Jets – 76 points (4th - Central)

The Jets are pursuing their first postseason appearance since returning to Manitoba. This team is in the middle of the pack in every statistical category and they’ve actually been playing some of their best hockey of the season. Head coach Paul Maurice has brought NHL experience to this organization and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has added some pieces to make this team deeper. Jiri Tlusty and Lee Stempniak aren’t ground breaking additions, but they give Maurice experience and a few more line-up options.

Winnipeg can take encouragement from a strong group of defensemen led by a top four that features Tobias Enstrom, Tyler Myers, Mark Stuart and Jacob Trouba. The Jets also have the benefit of Michael Hutchinson between the pipes. The 25-year old has gradually developed from a solid rotation option alongside Ondrej Pavelec to being the starting option. Hutchinson has a competitiveness and fight in his game that is beginning to also be the identity of Maurice’s team.

The Jets have the toughest remaining schedule in the NHL (based on winning percentage) and they don’t have a huge amount playoff experience among their core players.

Predicted Finish: 5th Central - outside of Wildcard spots

Minnesota Wild – 75 points (5th - Central)

A period of progress that started two summers ago when they signed top free agent duo Ryan Suter and Zach Parise appeared to have stalled earlier this season. A 7-2 hammering at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan 13 dropped the Wild to a record below .500 (18-19-5). Head coach Mike Yeo’s job was looking less secure and the Wild were in serious danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether. Since reaching near rock bottom, Minnesota has rocketed back up the standings starting on Jan 15 with a 7-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres. They’ve posted a 16-3-2 record since that big loss to the Penguins.

Few teams can ice a fourth line featuring Kyle Brodziak, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, and while some of the team’s stars haven’t managed production worthy of their contracts, they’ve got a lot of high quality scoring depth. Goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s strong form has been a significant factor as the trio of Dubnyk, Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom all struggled in the early months of the season.

Predicted Finish: 4th Central – first Wildcard spot


Pacific Division Equation

The complicating factor in the NHL’s playoff qualification set up is that both division and conference standings impact who gets a postseason berth. Anaheim and two other teams from the division will reach the postseason, and two other teams could theoretically qualify as Wildcards.

Vancouver Canucks – 75 points (2nd – Pacific)

The Canucks ended up standing pat as the NHL trade deadline. This team is at an interesting point where they have an opportunity to put some distance between themselves and their rivals, but it might be just as easy to drop down the standings and out of a playoff place altogether. The Canucks have a ton of injuries right now with Ryan Miller, Alexander Edler, Alex Burrows, Christopher Tanev and Kevin Bieksa all currently sidelined. However, they play eight of their next 12 games on home ice and, based on winning percentage of opposition, have the easiest remaining schedule in the Western conference.

GM Jim Benning and head coach Willie Desjardins have constructed a different kind of team compared to the one that missed out on the playoffs altogether in 2013-14 and even the team that managed to win just one game in the two previous playoffs combined. These Canucks play with a little extra grit and are finding ways to overachieve.

Predicted Finish: 2nd Pacific

Calgary Flames – 72 points (3rd – Pacific)

It has been five seasons since the Flames last made the postseason and Bob Hartley’s group still has a lot of work to do before they break that streak. It starts by continuing to compete on their current seven-game Eastern road-swing (2-2 so far) and it will involve surviving without captain and important defenseman Mark Giordano. As Calgary’s former core gradually departed Alberta during a period where the franchise was in decline, Giordano remained and his role has grown. He has emerged as the leader and a genuine #1 blue liner during a difficult period for the Flames. He is second on the team in scoring and has played a lot of the team’s critical minutes over the past two seasons.

It’s not going to be easy to replace Giordano. T.J. Brodie assumes more responsibility, while Hartley will be hoping that he can get experienced stay-at-home defenseman Ladislav Smid back into the lineup sooner rather than later. The forward group will also have to pick up some of the slack. Youngsters Johnny Gadreau, Sean Monahan, Lance Bouma, Joe Colborne and Josh Joories will have to face that pressure and raise their games in the last two months.

Predicted Finish: 5th Pacific – outside of Wildcard spots

Los Angeles Kings – 72 points (4th in Pacific)

Are the LA Kings coming or are they slumping? It appeared that the Kings had finally worked things out after an erratic first four months when they reeled off eight straight wins in February. However, they then lost three straight before snapping that skid with a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night.

The defending champions are a difficult team to figure out. They have experience, talent, depth and goaltending, but all season long they’ve struggled to establish themselves. They won’t be overly concerned about playoff seeding after twice winning the Stanley Cup as a lower seed. However, maybe they should be a little more worried about getting into the playoffs at all.

Head coach Darryl Sutter will know that there are two players in particular who can help get this team moving in the right direction – Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. Kopitar has just 13 goals and 48 points through 60 games - the worst scoring pace of his career. After managing just two assist in the previous five games, he had an explosion of sorts on Tuesday with a three-point night against the Oilers. Meanwhile, Doughty is the spark plug that connects LA’s stingy defense to its occasionally anemic offense; the importance of his play is increase by the absence of Slava Voynov, though the addition of Andrej Sekera will help.

Predicted Finish: 4th Pacific – second Wildcard spot

San Jose Sharks – 72 points (5th in Pacific)

After an era of consistently reaching the postseason, but never making it to the Stanley Cup finals, Sharks’ GM Doug Wilson suggested that he was ready to overhaul his team last offseason. Those plans were rapidly aborted for a somewhat “tamer” set of adjustments. He may yet regret not following through on his initial promise if San Jose doesn’t find a way to at least sneak into the playoffs.

The next week will be an important one for the Sharks. They play Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Chicago at home (all tough games) before embarking on a seven-game road trip that takes them into April. Todd McLellan’s team have oddly been a little better away from the Shark Tank this team posting a 17-11-3 record and they’ll need to keep that level of play up to continue their push towards the postseason.

The Outsiders


The Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars are still potentially in contention, so we don’t want to rule them out. Both have young rosters, slightly porous defenses and would need to win a huge proportion of their games, or require the complete collapse of multiple teams. Neither of those scenarios feel particularly likely and the Avalanche and Stars are not serious contenders in the Western conference playoff picture.